US, India, Afghanistan discuss ways of getting around Pakistan

WASHINGTON: Diplomats from Afghanistan, India, and the United States met in New York on the margins of the United Nations in the first formal trilateral meeting aimed at overcoming Pakistan's selective blockade of landlocked Afghanistan.

''The meeting provided a forum for the US Government and the Government of India to explore ways to coordinate and align their assistance with the priorities of the Afghan government,'' a joint statement following the meeting said, amid reports that Pakistan has declined to allow Indian wheat supplies and other humanitarian aid overland to Afghanistan. The blockade has angered Kabul+ , which has sought trade and transit routes to and from India through Pakistan. It has gone so far as to warn Islamabad that it can retaliate if that is not granted by restricting Pakistan's access to Central Asia.

The US, which essentially buys access to Afghanistan+ through Pakistan with aid (in the form of Coalition Support Funds and through multilateral agency), is trying to broker an agreement. But going beyond that the three sides are also looking at other options as Pakistan's belligerence and hostility has increased sharply in recent months. There have been frequent calls in Pakistan to stop US access even though the rent-extraction has proved to be profitable for the Pakistani establishment and its elites.

US detente with Iran over the past year is also opening up access to Afghanistan through Chabahar port in which India is heavily invested, enabling all three sides to circumvent Pakistan.

Chabahar has also diluted the importance of Gwadar port in Balochistan, only about 100 miles from Chabahar along the Makran coast, which Pakistan has placed its bet on hoping China will find it useful.

China, leery of unrest in Balochistan, has indicated it is happy to use both Chabahar and Gwadar.

While Pakistan becomes increasingly isolated despite periodic expressions of support from China highlighted only in the Pakistani media, Indian officials say Islamabad has developed a pathological fear of New Delhi's renewed strong ties with Afghanistan (and Iran). Pakistan questions why New Delhi is so close to Kabul even though the two countries do not share a border, forgetting that India and Afghanistan (and Iran) existed long before Pakistan was even a dream in its founders' eye.For decades, Pakistan has seen Afghanistan and Iran as allies in its search for strategic depth against India without investing anything worthwhile in the countries -- ''other than exporting terrorism,'' in the eyes of Indian and Afghan officials.

While Pakistan sought to expand its sphere of influence by backing the extremist Taliban and other factions in Afghanistan, India chose the harder route of winning support through economic investment with some signature projects, including building hospitals, roads, and the Parliament building in Kabul.

The pay-off is evident: surveys show a huge support for India in Afghanistan, which in any case has historical ties with New Delhi predating the creation of Pakistan, which was formed mainly from provinces between India and Afghanistan.

But as Kabul has slipped away from its sphere of influence gathered through terrorist and extremist proxies, Pakistan has launched a trade blockade, depriving itself of revenues in order to disrupt Afghan-India commerce.

Afghan diplomats called out Pakistan publicly at the UN and its margins this week in an unprecedented manner.

''The way Pakistan behaves is because they have India phobia,'' Afghan foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani said, even as other Afghan officials indicated that as Pakistan stood isolated in the region, the SAARC summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November was now in jeopardy.
The trilateral joint statement was circumspect while not going into the weeds of the geo-political developments.

Reaffirming their shared interests in advancing peace and security in the region, as well as countering terrorism, all sides welcomed the discussions focused on political, economic, and development goals in Afghanistan, including the regional dimension,'' it said blandly. 'The meeting provided a forum for the U.S and India to explore ways to coordinate and align their assistance with the priorities of the Afghan government. They agreed that the dialogue helps advance shared values and goals, and decided to continue these consultations on a regular basis,'' it added.
Pakistan meanwhile attempted to retrieve some lost ground by reaching out to Iran, with whom it has had an on-off ties of late, on the sidelines of UNGA. Sharif met Iranian President Hassan Rouhani amid expressions of interest from Teheran in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).